“Although the story by which the tartan kilt has become the national dress of Scotland is tortuous and myth-laden, and the way in which it is worn can vary from the sublime to the ridiculous, Highland dress is a powerful symbol of the wearer’s pride in Scottish ancestry and in Scotland itself. There are few, if any, other forms of national dress which can claim to make such a clear and unequivocal statement, and to be so instantly recognized.”
Alastair Campbell of Airds, Unicorn Pursuviant and Chairman, Advisory Committee on Tartans to the Lord Lyon
The kilt is thought to have been based loosely on the tunics worn by the occupying Romans. It evolved from an area where trousers (trews) would have been perpetually wet. The big kilt (feileadh breacan or feileadh mor) was essentially a large blanket that the Highlander used for many purposes, not the least of which was simply to keep him warm. The small kilt (feileadh beg), on the other hand, embodied the same idea but was easier to wear.
In their initial dispatches from Scotland, Roman soldiers noted the Picts’ skill in dyeing and weaving, referring to them as “painted people.” Tacitus, an early Roman historian who related the first recorded battle between Roman soldiers and the Picts, identified the latter as a red-haired people with “painted bodies.”
Realistically, our Highland ancestors probably wore one form of the kilt or another. Our Border and Lowland ancestors probably did not wear one and they probably considered a kilt, and those who wore them, to be rather barbaric; it was more normal for gentlemen to wear trews.
Although the exact derivation of the word ‘tartan’ is not clear, it originally referred to a type of material rather than a specific pattern. It was not until much later that a system of “striping” in certain colors became a method of identifying a Highlander ’s affiliation. This too may have evolved from the Romans, who displayed rank by marking their shirts with stripes; the more stripes, the higher the rank.
The plaid (pronounced ‘played’ in Gaelic, which meant blanket) was a large piece of woolen material woven in a pattern, although originally it was probably shades of gray, and was an old textile concept for Highland wear. When wrapped around the body in a certain way, it became theFeileadh Mhor or Feileadh Beag–now commonly referred to as the Great Kilt. Like native people in other lands, the Picts used different plants to produce distinctive colors and combinations of colors.
Evolution into Specific Tartans
The first recorded effort to identify a clan with a pattern occurred in 1618, when Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstou wrote to Murray of Pulrossie to request that the plaids worn by Murray’s men be brought into “harmony with that of his other septs.”
Actually, the type of sprig worn in the bonnet was the primary item that denoted association with a particular Clan, not the Highland dress or the woolen cloth woven in a specific design. Clan Henderson’s sprig is cottongrass, which is also the name of the Clan newsletter in Gaelic (An Canach).
One of the most familiar tartans is a military one. In 1715, after the first Jacobite uprising, the English government believed that more order needed to be brought to Scotland. Consequently, a number of independent companies were formed to deal with the rampant crime that had developed in both the Highlands and the Lowlands. Distinguished by their darkly colored tartans, these independent regiments were known as the Black Watch.
When the English 1746 ban on the wearing of Highland dress and the tartan was lifted in 1814, it was done so for many reasons, not the least of which was economic. Very simply, the textile manufacturers, or “drapers” as our Scottish sources would call them, were exploiting a new marketing strategy of tying specific setts to specific families or areas.
Evolution to Modern Times
Credit for the primary resurgence of the kilt and the tartan, however, must go to Sir Walter Scott, the famed novelist and poet of Scotland. In 1822, Scott, aided by General Stewart of Garth, arranged for a state visit to Edinburgh by George IV. This was the first visit to Scotland by an English monarch in more than 200 years. The result was a public relations event of its day, cultivating a craze for the kilt and other cultural icons of the Highlands.
This new-found respectability for the Highlands, and Highlanders, received another important boost later in the century from Queen Victoria, who raved about her Highland retreat at Balmoral. More recently, England’s House of Windsor, notably Prince Charles, has done much to maintain the popularity of the kilt.